With the injuries of Mastery and Unique Bella, the Derby and Oaks trails on the west coast have become the most muddled three-year-old series in an unclear year from coast to coast. This Saturday’s races, the Santa Anita Derby (G1) and the Santa Anita Oaks (G1), present one more chance for starts to emerge on the road to Kentucky.
In addition to this preview, we also discuss the weekend’s other three-year-old points races in separate pieces. Keeneland’s Saturday card features the Blue Grass (G2) and the Ashland (G1). Aqueduct features the Wood Memorial (G2) and the Gazelle (G2).
NBC Sports Network will air a telecast of the Santa Anita Derby, the Blue Grass Stakes, and the Wood Memorial starting at 4:30pm CDT. Horse Racing Radio Network will provide live audio coverage of the Santa Anita Derby, as well as the Ashland Stakes, Blue Grass Stakes, and Wood Memorial, streaming on their website from 4:30pm-6:30pm CDT.
Morning lines for the Santa Anita Oaks were not available at original publish time. Edited Thursday, April 6 to add morning lines for the Santa Anita Oaks.
Race 6: Santa Anita Oaks (G1), three-year-old fillies, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 2:30pm PDT
This year marks the 78th running of the Santa Anita Oaks, a race initially dubbed the Santa Susana Stakes. Inaugurated as a two-furlong dash for two-year-old fillies in 1935, it was next run in 1937, and has been restricted to three-year-old fillies from then on. Since being reinvented as a three-year-old race, it has been run at distances as short as six furlongs and as long as its current distance; it has been run at 1 1/16 miles since 1958. Over its history, six Santa Anita Oaks winners have also worn the garland of lilies in Louisville: Blue Norther (1964), Susan’s Girl (1972), Bold ‘n Determined (1980), Fran’s Valentine (1985), Lite Light (1991), and Rags to Riches (2007). In addition to those six Kentucky Oaks winners, the Santa Anita Oaks has also produced one Kentucky Derby winner: Winning Colors (1988). One other winner, Busher (1945), never ran in the Kentucky Oaks (or Derby) but saw success in Chicago later that year. That summer at Washington Park, she beat older males in both the Arlington Handicap and the Washington Park Handicap.
Beholder wins the 2013 Santa Anita Oaks. Still a top-notch distaffer at age six, she would win the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) over that year’s Santa Anita Oaks winner, Songbird.
This year’s Santa Anita Oaks drew a field of just seven to contend for a share of a $400,000 purse and Kentucky Oaks points (100-40-20-10). This race looks like the battle of the fillies with second-to-Unique Bella medals: MOPOTISM, IT TIZ WELL, and ABEL TASMAN all have one on their shelf. This space leans toward the most class-proven of that trio: ABEL TASMAN. Yes, there has been drama surrounding her: supposedly because of a silks snafu in the Santa Ysabel (G3), ABEL TASMAN got yoinked out of the barn of Simon Callaghan, and makes her first start here for new trainer Bob Baffert. Musical barns aside, ABEL TASMAN ran as well as anyone has behind Unique Bella this year when finishing clearly second in the Santa Ysabel. That was her first start since her Starlet (G1) win last December, too, giving her upside second off the lay. The pace should suit her, as well. ABEL TASMAN can rate and rally from anywhere off the pace, and with both PRINCESS KAREN and BERNINA STAR best on the front, and even PARADISE WOODS and MOPOTISM possible up front, ABEL TASMAN ought to get a setup. The biggest question is the rider — Joe Talamo had ridden ABEL TASMAN in all of her starts. Seeing him taken off (and with no mount for the Santa Anita Oaks) is a disappointment. But, she does get an excellent big race day rider in his place, Mike Smith. ABEL TASMAN looks tough here, and this space finds no good reason to oppose her.
Her biggest competition comes from Unique Bella’s stablemate IT TIZ WELL. This filly earned her second-to-Unique Bella medal three back in the Santa Ynez (G2), but followed that up with a facile allowance score and a length victory in the Honeybee (G3) at Oaklawn. The Honeybee was her first start at a route distance, and she took to it as well as one would expect from an Arch filly out of a Tiznow mare. There, she rated off the pace — a positive sign, as it was her first time going a route, yet she was a bit farther off the pace than she had been before. The connections appeal, too. Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer has a 23% strike rate this meet, and rider Corey Nakatani has won four of his last five for the Dorf. That includes IT TIZ WELL’s win in the Honeybee.
MOPOTISM steps back up in class after winning the Island Fashion Stakes at Sunland. That’s the local prep to the Sunland Park Oaks (G3), but she instead turns up at Santa Anita. She has a win at the Great Race Place already — over a wet fast track, which may prove important since Saturday morning’s forecast calls for rain in Arcadia. She also finally showed last out at Sunland that she can win a race without being right on the lead. Of course, this field will prove harder than what MOPOTISM beat last time out. But, she has never been out of the money at two turns, and her pedigree suggests that is no fluke.
#4 ABEL TASMAN (6/5)
#2 IT TIZ WELL (5/2)
#1 MOPOTISM (6/1)
Longshot: This space looked long and hard at PARADISE WOODS, given the excellent connections of Richard Mandella and Flavien Prat behind her. However, it is her first two-turn try…and being out of a Forest Wildcat mare, PARADISE WOODS is going to have to prove she wants two turns. Instead, this space will go for the maiden, #6 MAJESTIC QUALITY (10/1). She does have tables to turn, as she finished behind both ABEL TASMAN and MOPOTISM in their maiden wins. However, MAJESTIC QUALITY ran on for second behind Farrell in the Rachel Alexandra (G2) at Fair Grounds last out, and Farrell franked that effort in the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) last weekend. MAJESTIC QUALITY had actually entered to run at Fair Grounds again, in that race — but, instead, trainer Keith Desormeaux scratched her and stayed home. That should be for the best, especially since staying home means she can keep rider Kent Desormeaux in the irons for this effort. MAJESTIC QUALITY will have to take a big step forward to win this. But, with speed in front of her, running on for a piece at a price is not out of the question.
Race 8: Santa Anita Derby (G1), three-year-olds, one and one eighth miles on the dirt, post time 3:30pm PDT
This year marks the 80th running of the Santa Anita Derby. Inaugurated in 1935 as a 1 1/16 mile race for three-year-olds, the race was stretched to its current nine-furlong distance in 1938 and has stayed there ever since except for 1947. That year, at least apocryphally due to worries about West Coast form sent east, it was run at the Classic distance of 1 1/4 miles. Generally speaking, Santa Anita Derby winners have compared favourably to others running in the Triple Crown, though they have stacked up better in recent years than in the distant past. The race has been a strong prep through its history: 17 winners of the Santa Anita Derby have gone on to annex the Kentucky Derby. 11 of those 17 performed that double in the last forty years. One of these, Affirmed, went on to win the Triple Crown in 1978. Both California-bred winners of the Kentucky Derby won the Santa Anita Derby on their way to the bluegrass: Swaps (1955) and California Chrome (2014). Other prominent winners of the Santa Anita Derby include prominent and prolific sire A. P. Indy (1989), Secretariat’s second fiddle Sham (1973), and that epitome of deep closers, Silky Sullivan (1958).
California Chrome wins the 2014 Santa Anita Derby easily. He would win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in his next two starts.
With Mastery off the Derby trail, west coast Derby hopefuls have come out in force for the Santa Anita Derby: thirteen horses passed the entry box to contend for shares of a $1,000,000 purse and Kentucky Derby points (100-40-20-10) for the top four finishers. Two hail from the barn of John Shirreffs, three come from Bob Baffert’s shedrow, and a whopping four represent Doug O’Neill.
Yet, this space gravitates toward the one and only entry from trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. Yes, BATTLE OF MIDWAY gets a class test here, and he has tables to turn on ILIAD after finishing eight lengths behind him in the San Vicente. Yet, this is a completely different race. The San Vicente was five horses going seven furlongs; this is thirteen going a mile and an eighth. And, BATTLE OF MIDWAY acquitted himself nicely last out, in his first two-turn start. There he settled midpack, made his rally, and held on to finish the job over a quality horse. That ability to rate off the pace should serve him well here, as should that ability to make a relatively early move and still seal the deal. Finally, if the rain in the forecast comes to fruition? BATTLE OF MIDWAY not only has solid mud breeding, but got his diploma over a wet-fast track at Santa Anita in January.
The horse BATTLE OF MIDWAY outfought in that two-turn debut was REACH THE WORLD, who makes his stakes debut here. Of three entrants from the Bob Baffert barn, REACH THE WORLD is the “A”, with good reason. He has three starts under him, and he has shown versatility. He wired his maiden win two back (and beat Sonneteer, who later finished second in the Rebel) — and then, last out, rallied from the back of the pack to finish second beaten just a neck behind BATTLE OF MIDWAY. The extra sixteenth of a mile shouldn’t hurt, and may help him; he is by Tapit, and his dam is by Galileo out of a Seattle Slew mare. He also keeps the services of his regular rider, a person who knows how to win on a big race day: Mike Smith.
GORMLEY disappointed in the San Felipe (G2) last out, but between his ultra-game victory in the Sham two back and the fact that he already showed Grade 1 class last year, he gets one more chance here. This race has him second off a two-month break, and his back form suggests there’s plenty in the tank for him to bounce back to. Furthermore, rider Victor Espinoza was the regular rider for both John Shirreffs trainees, GORMLEY and ROYAL MO. Espinoza turns up on GORMLEY, which reads as a vote of confidence. That seems a smart choice. ROYAL MO is marooned on the outside, and hasn’t proven himself to be particularly ratable. GORMLEY, on the other hand, should be able to press the pace in the early stages and dig in late, and does not stand to be marooned quite so wide. Finally, the rain in the forecast doesn’t hurt GORMLEY’s case either; his Sham victory came over a sloppy track.
#3 BATTLE OF MIDWAY (5/1)
#2 REACH THE WORLD (5/1)
#8 GORMLEY (9/2)
Longshot: #11 IRISH FREEDOM (20/1) is the Bob Baffert “C” entry here, and in tough. He has raced just twice, and never in stakes company. He was a well-beaten fifth behind the top two choices in an allowance last time out. But, that was his first start since last August at Del Mar; he may have been a little short for that allowance try. IRISH FREEDOM has been working like gangbusters since, too: three sharp works, including a six-furlong bullet on April 2. He should be And, he gets a switch back to Rafael Bejarano here. Bejarano did ride IRISH FREEDOM to that maiden victory last summer. Bejarano has also been strong for Baffert lately; though they have only combined five times in the last two months, they have four win pictures to show for it. In short? Demand a price on IRISH FREEDOM, because he needs a serious step forward here. But between his stalking style, his distance breeding, his connections, and his being second off the lay? Since you’ll probably get at least that 20/1 morning line, he’s worth a shot.